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Suicide Diary: Acclaimed rock author Jason Schneider gets to the dark heart of Canadian punk legend Art Bergmann with new bio

When Ontario author Jason Schneider contacted legendary punk rocker Art Bergmann to write Bergmann’s biography, he wasn’t sure how it would go due to the many stories about the artist’s wild ways and crusty demeanour. 

Fortunately for us, it went so well that Schneider — a natural-born writer who got his start reviewing records for his high school newspaper after immersing himself in Rolling Stone and Creem magazines — and Bergmann will appear at a Wordfest event Dec.6 to talk about the book The Longest Suicide: The Authorized Biography of Art Bergmann. Bergmann will also perform a new song at the event.

TheSCENE caught up with the writer and his subject separately for a few questions about the book.

SCHNEIDER

Q: How did you end up becoming involved in The Longest Suicide?

A: Around 1996 I began working with Michael Barclay and Ian Jack on our book Have Not Been The Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995. We each had our specific tasks, and one of mine was to write about the Vancouver scene. That was when I first met Art and interviewed him. He was living in Toronto then. We kept in touch after that when I was working at Exclaim Magazine. Then when I transitioned to doing PR about seven years ago, Phil Klygo who runs Art’s label (weewerk) got in touch with me and asked if I’d be Art’s publicist. That worked out well, and at one point Phil had the idea of having me write Art’s biography. It made sense, and Art and I started having regular phone calls where we would just talk about his life. When he received the Order of Canada in late 2020, that was the moment I felt I should kick it into high gear, so I approached Anvil Press who immediately got on board, and I devoted the next 18 months to working on the book.

Q: The title caused a bit of a stir. How did you come up with it?

A: The title was Art’s suggestion. I was having trouble coming up with something suitable, and he offered a few. As soon as I heard The Longest Suicide, I knew it was the one, and by some miracle it hadn’t been used before. I think Art wanted the title to reflect this perception that he’s consistently made bad career choices. Of course, I don’t necessarily believe that, but for me The Longest Suicide also reflects the black humour at the heart of a lot of Art’s best work.

Q: The book is meticulously researched, and my favourite parts are about Arthur’s family history and his early days raising hell with music. How did you complete the research? How did you choose who to speak with?

A: I wrote the book in chronological order because I knew that writing about his childhood and family history would be the hardest part. His memories provided the foundation, and from there I reached out to an expert on Canadian Mennonite families and anyone I could find who knew him in the pre-punk days. There was some old-fashioned cold calling involved, and that led to more connections being made. The most wonderful thing about the entire process was that everyone had only kind words to say about Art and wanted to help however they could.

Q: What surprised you as you were working on this?

A: Researching Art’s family history was definitely interesting, and I immediately developed an admiration for his father, who seemed like an incredibly intelligent and generous human being. I was so lucky to find the article he wrote for Maclean’s, which in some ways reads like a punk manifesto (https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1973/12/1/a-workingman-serves-his-own-master). It was also great to get other people’s perspectives on some of the most famous stories associated with Art’s “legend.” That’s why I chose to separate Art’s quotes from the main text — he has his own unique way of telling his version of events. And of course, getting Sherri’s (Bergmann’s wife of over 30 years who died suddenly in March this year) perspective was essential. The book couldn’t have been written without her input.

Q: What is your favourite Art Bergmann song? Album?

A: I think Art’s most recent two albums, The Apostate and Late Stage Empire Dementia, are the best things he’s ever done, both musically and lyrically. In my opinion they’re on par with Leonard Cohen’s later work in terms of commenting on the state of our society. But for pure pop craftsmanship, you still can’t beat Faithlessly Yours. That really should have been a bigger hit than it was.

Q: What do you wish I’d asked you that I didn’t, and, what is the answer to that?

A: So what’s Art really like? He’s a sweetheart – just don’t tell anybody.

ART BERGMANN

Favourite part of book: I love that he started with my parents’ story.

Story I would like told: The stories behind every song. I would like people to ask me about the songs.

What’s it been like to have (part of) your story told?: Validating. I want people to hear my music.

Jason Schneider and Art Bergmann appear as part of a Wordfest event Dec. 6 at Memorial Park Library. For more information go to wordfest.com.

(Full disclosure: Mary-Lynn Wardle has been a friend of Bergmann’s for years and will be conducting the interview for the Wordfest event.)

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